Opera America Conference 2018: No Easy Answers Regarding Race and the World of Opera

By Santosh Venkataraman

Race and ethnicity continue to vex the opera world in the same manner as they do the rest of society. If events at last week’s Opera America Conference are indicative of the industry, it’s a topic that requires further discussion at future conferences with no easy answers in sight.

There were no fewer than five panels related to race and ethnicity this year, including one entitled “Recognizing and Undoing Racism” that was streamed live by Opera America and is available on YouTube.

It was on this panel that Opera America president Marc Scorca made the most important point about the operatic business model in the United States.

“Our business model is based on exploiting the visibility of rich white people,” Scorca said. “So if we look at performance programs, newsletters, the gala coverage in the newspaper, our business model still depends on the desire of some wealthy white people to have visibility.”

There really isn’t a solution to this simple fact. And as Scorca noted, there is a cost involved with this model as to how the public relates to opera.

“So we lament our stereotypic image and reinforce it frequently, so it’s a concern,” he said. “And a lot of our companies will do work that they imagine to be relevant to their communities. And when they have chosen their repertoires, they will ring the doorbell of the black church or the Hispanic cultural center and seek a short-term relationship they want to define as mutually beneficial but is really short-term exploitation for ticket sales.”

How the Trauma of Race Affects Our Country

While the politics of race are a hot-button issue, where it can be easily seen is in the first access point of opportunity: education. One of the panelists was Mark Edward Kent, the president of The Biome Foundation.

The Biome School is a charter school in St. Louis founded in 2003 which does not charge tuition as a pubic school, yet must fundraise in order to account for shortfalls. Students are chosen via a lottery for an intense curriculum focused on core academic areas such as science, math and business.

Kent described the condition of the students his school gets.

“What we see along the lines of trauma is really a lack of access to what many of us take for granted, things like being read to as an infant and understanding how to spell your name when you enter kindergarten or first grade and understanding the difference between letters and numbers,” Kent said. “We take all these things for granted, these are normal things.”

Racial issues were always present in St. Louis like many major cities, but not necessarily on the forefront of anyone’s minds. That changed in St. Louis following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in nearby Ferguson. While the Brown shooting became a national story, its impact locally was like an eruption.

“I had just finished falling deeply in love with St. Louis as a community after being here for I guess seven years when Michael Brown was killed,” said OTSL general director Timothy O’Leary, who is set to take over at Washington National Opera this summer. “And just briefly about trauma, it was like centuries of trauma had surfaced in a new way.”

Opera Theatre of St. Louis went on to hold concerts at Normandy High School, where Brown had graduated from, in the aftermath of the shooting in an attempt to heal the community. Yet the Brown shooting remains something that sharply divides the public.

How Can Opera Reflect Its Communities?

It was at a roundtable event titled “People of Color in Opera” that several attendees made the same point: that it takes seeing faces in performances that look like them to convince them to attend anything. That truism in entertainment certainly applies to opera.

In his comments about the visibility of rich white people, Scorca noted that some companies employ that model to a lesser degree than others with Opera Theatre of St. Louis as an example. The company has done so in part with its commissions via the New Works, Bold Voices series that included this year’s world premiere of “An American Soldier” by Huang Ruo and librettist David Henry Hwang.

That work was a resounding success with a cast and creative team of predominantly Asian-Americans. The Japanese-American director Matthew Ozawa came on board according to O’Leary because artistic director James Robinson felt the story would be more effective if it was in the hands of an Asian-American.

The next general director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis is Andrew Jorgensen, who comes over after serving as director of artistic planning and operations at Washington National Opera. It was there that he worked with artistic director Francesca Zambello, who pushed for more diversity in the company.

“Our company should look like our city,” Jorgensen said. “Washington has diversity that was not found in our staff or on our stage.”

Jorgensen revealed at the conference that WNO had an unwritten set of rules that it followed for programming: no season was allowed to have all male conductors; no season was allowed to have all male director-design teams; no casts were allowed to be all-white.  It was a conscious decision not to make these stipulations public in the interest of equity.

The idea of how equity relates to diversity is a vital distinction. Having people of different backgrounds is enough to satisfy diversity, while allowing those people to have an equal chance to prove their merit is how an equitable culture is forged.

“Diversity is like being asked to the party and equity is being actually asked to dance,” said panelist Melanie Powell-Robinson of the Diversity Awareness Partnership.

Make the Marginalized Comfortable

This year’s panel on race followed a particularly revelatory one a year ago in Dallas titled “Creating Change: Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.”

Most notable in that panel were the experiences of two black women:  Keryl McCord, who said she had been to the opera three times and felt comfortable, and L. Michelle Smith, who said she was a classically trained mezzo-soprano and felt the same way.

Those remarks deeply affected those in the audience that day.

“(As far as) these spaces being so overwhelmingly traditionally white this is profoundly important work that we have got to do in our field,” O’Leary said.

Opera America responded by placing Smith on its board of directors and she was in St. Louis for the conference to lend her perspective improving matters.

Bringing people into the fold is critical and requires casting a wide net.  One aspect of making this pool bigger is understanding that not everyone has the same background, particularly minorities. That simply must be taken into consideration.

“It is beyond time that we level the playing field,” said Felicia Shaw, the executive director of the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis. “And organizations like the symphony and the opera are going to have to accept that in order for us to catch up and re-invest in the communities that have been so marginalized that we’re going to have to accept maybe not less but different.”

O’Leary cited an interesting case about Opera Theatre of St. Louis.  The company has long been recognized among the most welcoming in the country thanks to the tradition of “The Tent” – the big tent outside in which patrons can meet and greet performers afterward with no requirement of being a donor. It’s a unique feature that helps create an inviting atmosphere.

There are numerous tables where patrons can dine before the performance and remain afterward.  Yet the company discovered an odd problem within this convivial setting. Longtime patrons and regulars were laying claim to their “favorite tables.” Though this seems innocuous, it could and did have the effect of making newcomers feel unwelcome because a table was “taken.”

This episode proves that inclusion isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.

Too Big a Hill to Climb

If there is a word that makes people in opera shudder and can foster intense debate, it is “elitist.” I had dinner with one composer who insisted that opera can’t not consider itself elitist based on how much tickets for performances cost in St. Louis and elsewhere.  At the same time, in a nod to millennials, many companies offer ticket deals that make opera accessible while smaller companies are putting forth innovative programming.

Opera has a tradition of dealing with grand ideas but “undoing” racism is too pie-in-the-sky to be looked at in that scale.  It will rather take smaller steps to try to create diversity from possibly targeting minorities to mentor such as from a school like Kent’s or offering a seat at the table like Smith’s position at Opera America or bringing the opera to different communities such as through Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ “Opera Tastings” program.

One area of disappointment last week was how few minorities are among professional staff members of companies and how few were among conference attendees. Heeding Shaw’s words of accepting someone different rings true in this regard. Making the playing field more level will require more than what was on display last weekend.


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